Why A Reviewer Class Is Important For Online Fiction

MCM is the author of several successful (and extremely addictive) web novels, which he publishes at his site, 1889.ca. His latest work is The Vector – which is also a business experiment in a fiction format he calls ‘Serial +’. Here he talks about how a multi-tiered, superstar class of reviewers can help online fiction. This post is part two of a two part series; the first part can be found at Alan Baxter’s blog.

In my previous post over at Alan Baxter’s site, I talked about why a reviewer class is vital to the overall health of the weblit community. But creating that class shouldn’t just be about copying what the Old Publishing industry does. We’ve got more potential, so we should use it.

This is all going to be based on the Long Tail:

Web Fiction's Long Tail

In a nutshell, the head (left) is where the hits are, and the tail (everything else) consists of niches of various shapes and sizes. Mainstream publishing tends to focus on the head, leaving the rest of the graph totally undiscovered. It’s done this way out of necessity: churning the tail would take more resources and split more attentions than anyone can afford. Or, at least in the old system it would.

On the web, we are a massive collection of niches… far more niches than you can possibly put tags to. From a distance, it looks too busy to comprehend, let alone assign a reviewer to. The problem many weblit authors have is that their work doesn’t fit into a genre very cleanly. If you write erotic werewolf scifi mysteries, you probably get ignored by most reviewers, because they have no idea what to do with you. But that’s the old paradigm… on the internet there are as many experts as there are niches. What we need to do is find these connoisseurs and give them the tools they need to be heard and taken seriously, and encourage their authority over their niche.

For this example, we’ll make up a reviewer named Bob. Bob specializes in erotic werewolf scifi mysteries. Don’t judge him. Bob is the one who separates the wheat from the chaff without punishing you for your genre. To the readers and writers in that niche, Bob is the one that you trust for the truth. He becomes a Super User, if only on a limited scale.

Bob's niche

Above him, we have an umbrella niche for werewolf stories, with Jen as one of the top reviewers. Dealing with a larger pool of books than Bob, Jen can’t possibly read everything. Instead, she saves herself time by reading the best-ranked books coming from her sub-niches. Bob loved “The Werewolf’s Wife”, so Jen can safely pick it up, knowing the baseline quality is there. If she thinks it will be a good fit for her larger, more diverse niche, she can review it too.

Jen's niche

Repeat the process up and up the chain, and at each level, we’re treading closer to the head of the tail. If “The Werewolf’s Wife” is a work of true genius, it will float into the realm of the higher-level reviewers… these aren’t reviewers who are BETTER than their lower niche counterparts, they’re just appealing to a broader base, giving them a bigger readership pool and more influence. Not every book will make it up the structure, but there will be more mobility than ever before.

Now let’s say “The Werewolf’s Wife” made it to the upper levels of the “mystery” niche, and had magnificent reviews. The next book by the same author should (theoretically) not need to start from the bottom anymore. It can premiere near the top, thus removing a lot of the clutter waiting to be discovered by the micro-niche reviewers.

The Reviewer Hierarchy in Web Fiction

So how do we create this system? It’s pretty simple: first, we need to have a set of standards for reviewers. It needs to include an attribution clause, so as books travel upwards, the reviewers who discovered them are given credit. The reviewers need to establish themselves in their niches, rather than aspiring to be generic. Sites like the Web Fiction Guide could promote this notion of rockstar reviewers.

Authors need to play a part as well: link back to your reviews, send your readers to check them out. Trust isn’t a finite resource, so don’t be stingy with it. The more you teach your audience to trust your reviewers, the more the more powerful those reviewers will become. By helping Bob become well-respected in his niche, you’re giving yourself a head start with all subsequent books. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and the more work you put into it, the healthier the whole system will be.

Making an efficient and dependable reviewer class in the weblit world will help give everyone more credibility, so that when the rest of the world notices what we’re doing here, they’ll feel like it’s fully developed and ready for use. Otherwise, we’re just a wild west of half-wit writers waiting for the established players to arrive and bring us civilization.

MCM is still heavily invested in the future of online fiction. Read one of his books here, or spar with him in the comments below. (Oh and, I read The Vector. It rocks.)

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://1889.ca MCM

    I want to add a big thanks to Eli for letting me slum up his site, and yes, I am ready to spar

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Let me begin. =)

    I’m interested in your idea that web fiction is best served by a long tail of reviewers. Ideally (and building upon your point that you’ve got to have Super Users in your reader-base, somewhere) these reviewers would themselves have to be pretty influential people, commanding audiences in their own right.

    But there aren’t many people out there actively looking for online fiction to read in the first place.

    So, taking your argument to a logical conclusion, whoever these high level reviewers are going to be, they’re likely to be people who have communities clustered around them for something else, something quite different and separate from their web fiction work.

    It seems to me that if this ideal ecosystem of reviewers is going to work, there has to be some form of aggregation, some way of linking reviewer to reviewer, and reviewer to reader.

    That … actually sounds pretty familiar. WFG, anyone?

  • http://www.fluffy-seme.net Isa

    Ohohoh… I’ve brought my boxing gloves :D

    See, and i think I’ve mentioned this before elsewhere, the problem right now is that many of our review sites do not really attract readers, they attract OTHER WRITERS. So while your standard set of reviewers idea sounds nice, I question whether it will be able to really get the results you want … that is, more readers for the reviewed story. I think the reviewers we have out there now are an invaluable asset for writers in terms of addressing flaws in their storytelling and workshopping them out, but I’ve had more personal success in finding superusers who are not reviewers at all or even interested in books in any way.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    See, and i think I’ve mentioned this before elsewhere, the problem right now is that many of our review sites do not really attract readers, they attract OTHER WRITERS.

    Good one, Isa. That has always been (and still is) the biggest problem we’ve been struggling with. The last time we had this discussion, on Novelr, WFG was born.

  • http://www.fluffy-seme.net Isa

    ….and actually you’d be surprised how many people ARE looking to read webfiction. They’re just currently reading fanfiction because it’s easier to identify work that is exactly what they want, exactly the types of characters they like, exactly the story they like to read.

    So, in my mind, the real assignment should be to raise the profile of webfiction so that the readers know it exists. Then the opinions of reviewers will drive readership to certain stories. I’ll be honest, I really like the idea that’s been thrown around on weblit.us about having a trade association to promote webfiction as a whole … let me put it this way: I was running a webfiction publishing company for four months before I even knew WFG, EpiGuide and this blog existed, so all the quality reviewers in the world won’t help if the interested audience doesn’t know 1) that the industry exists and 2) where to find it.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Eli: I think the thing about WFG that works is that it has those interconnections already, but maybe what it needs is more of a niche-centric structure. Give the vampire books their own branded section, and the mysteries get their own design too. Let the top reviewers in each section become like mini-monarchs. All the same dynamics are there, but the presentation encourages grouping. On the front page, highlight a random scifi book, a random romance book, etc, rather than just totally random books.

    @Isa: I completely agree, the problem is that we’re too self-contained right now. Part of that is that we’re putting the “weblit” brand on everything, rather than the niche brands. If you could go to mystery.webfictionguide.com and have the weblit angle secondary to the mystery angle, we’d have better luck pulling in outsiders. Go to fansites for the different genres and see if you can entice a reader to set up shop on WFG, and take ownership of their niche. Nobody wants to do that for generic weblit, but they might do it if you appealed to their sense of “discovering the hot new voices”, where they get to be the star…

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Isa again: I think organization is key. Increasing awareness and creating a sense of legitimacy are important. The Academy Awards weren’t made because Hollywood thought movies deserved recognition, they were made because it was self-promotion in a sneaky way. Entertainment magazines create artificial buzz about entertainment products to win more eyeballs.

    I think the trick will be: centralized infrastructure, but niched presentation. Let every community do its own thing, but keep them in the family.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    ….and actually you’d be surprised how many people ARE looking to read webfiction. They’re just currently reading fanfiction because it’s easier to identify work that is exactly what they want, exactly the types of characters they like, exactly the story they like to read.

    Not exactly. The springboard from non-webfiction reader to webfiction reader with regards to fan-fiction is through anime, or pre-existing works. There is no direct springboard for a non-webfic reader to original online fiction. Perhaps these reviewers could be sourced from fanfiction communities, and the readers persuaded away from fanfiction sites?

    (I was going to say ‘stolen’ but then I realized that it sounded too much like Peter Pan. Or something.)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @MCM: Two things:

    1) Ownership. I like this. I don’t think we’ve got enough people willing to claim ownership over a specific niche, like “Want to know where to find good vampire fiction? Go to Jane” or something like that.

    2) It seems to me that you’re proposing an elite breed of reviewers, people who function like bloggers or online fiction writers, mini celebrities in their own right. Gathering that kind of community isn’t easy, and it’s going to take time. Would there be enough people out there willing to invest so much of their time and energy to build such an audience?

    (Perhaps a better way of phrasing that question would be: what incentives do we have that would increase the number of superstar reviewers?)

  • http://webfictionguide.com/ Chris Poirier

    I had wanted to set up a “take a tour with . . . ” system for WFG, where people could get recommendations from a respected reviewer within each catalogue section (based on review helpfulness, section coverage, and other metrics). Had a (mostly) workable design for it, too. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for it in the last release, and my plate has since gotten very full. I’ll probably eventually get to it, but not sure when. However, it would probably go a long way to addressing these kinds of problems . . . .

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Eli: It would be an elite breed of reviewer, but probably not right away. Their reputation would have to build over time for sure, but in the end it will be a question of (and pardon my crass approach) stroking the ego of the would-be superstars. The more writers gloat about the reviews they get, the more the reviewer will want to participate. The more they participate, the more of a reputation they’ll build… until eventually, the reviewers can make hits by blessing certain works, and the authors have easier access to a bigger market.

    In other words, it’s a happily closed system of positive feedback, as long as someone starts the process.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Chris: That would be excellent, yes! All you need to do is clone yourself. Didn’t I send you the machine for that yet? ;)

    To illustrate the revised dynamic, I’d go to this (for example):
    http://webfictionguide.com/urban-fantasy+vampires+romance/reviews/
    and rather than listing the top books, give a prominent spot to the top-rated reviewer in that section. The books are still the centrepiece, but the framing is the reviewer’s identity. The top third of the page is the start of one review, and then list others below it. Make a list of the most valued reviewers and their top picks for the genre. Make the reviewers a big part of the brand, and you’ll attract a crowd purely based on the basic human desire to be seen. If you could become the king of urban fantasy vampire romances, wouldn’t you put more effort into it? :)

    Of course, I can say all this because I’m not the one doing it. But you get the idea. We have no kingmakers in weblit yet. We need some.

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  • http://www.ditchwalk.com Mark Barrett

    I think the model makes sense structurally, but it’s going to take time to grow and evolve. The question for me, then, is how to speed up this inevitable process.

    The one thing that might smash the online (and self-publishing) gas pedal to the floor is the day that a non-traditionally-published work rises to compete toe-to-toe with mainstream works for something like a Pulitzer. Which means the shortest distance between then and now may be in focusing the online filtering process onto the best of the best of the best, then getting word out about those few select works.

    On a related note, I put up a post tonight —

    http://www.ditchwalk.com/2009/09/29/feedback-and-distortion/

    — dealing with problems inherent in the review process, and how online reviews and sites like Richard Nash’s Cursor project might even out the playing field for everyone.

    I also noted on e-Fiction Guide’s site, in this thread —

    http://efictionbookclub.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/why-you-should-self-publish-and-general-thoughts-on-reviews/

    — that:

    “…I want reviewers to demand as much of self-published works as they do of any other. No more, but absolutely no less. In fact, I can’t imagine anything that will do more to legitimize self-published authors.”

    Which goes back to MCM’s point that we need recognizable reviewers not simply to filter content, but to legitimize it.

    Good thread.

  • http://www.alanbaxteronline.com Alan

    Great to see this follow up to your article on my blog yesterday. It clarifies several points raised there.

    I think the fundamental things that people are alluding to time and again are:

    1. Review sites need to attract readers, not just writers;

    2. Reviewers need to be seen to be equally stringent with all work, regardless of how it reached them. Whether it’s a new hardback from Random House or a web serial self-published by Joe Bloggs, it needs to be treated the same;

    3. Certain reviewers need to be recognised as experts in their chosen genre/niche;

    3. By managing to achieve 1., 2. and 3. above, both reviewers and writers will achieve an equal legitimacy and a cycle of trust will be born.

    Things like WFG and eFiction Book Club are starting this process. By those sites maintaining their integrity and having the support of us as a writing community we start to achieve the things talked about in this article. Then it’s up to us as writers and those sites as reviewers to attract readers not just more writers and the slow burn should pick up pace.

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  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Mark: I know there was an idea floated at weblit.us about some kind of weblit awards, which would go a long way to creating superstars in the field. There’d have to be some way to deal with the likely tsunami of content vying for nominations, but if it were segmented well, I bet it could work. If we had a series of GOOD works with a “Weblit Award Winner” label on them, that would do a lot of good.

    I think there’s a place for writer-to-writer critiquing, but in the end, letting typos and other glitches slide (while still giving glowing reviews) only delegitimizes the process. Maybe we need some kind of system reviewers can hide behind, so they don’t have to feel bad? Every star is worth 20 points, and every typo costs you 1 point (with a max of 2 stars sacrificed to typos)? That way you can say “sorry, it’s just the way the system works…” I dunno. I know I’d have trouble ruining someone’s dreams over typos, but I may just be the odd one :)

    @Alan: Yes, it’s the positive feedback loop in action! The more people participate, the stronger the loop becomes. Nobody can operate in isolation, or they’re weakening the whole. We just need to make everyone aware of that somehow…

    I have one more post in me this week on this subject, about the need for a poppy support structure for the reviewers… but I’ll save that for Thursday. It’ll take some time to jot down…

  • http://www.katandmouseserial.com Ace

    Excellent points, everyone.

    Now I may have missed it in the discussion. (If so, please point me to the comment.) Where do we find Bob the Niche Reviewer? Is he in the fanfiction sites?

    And Jen the Reviewer On Top Of Bob? Is she also to be found in the fanfiction sites? Or is she elsewhere?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Ace: I don’t think it’s that much of an issue where we find these reviewers (it’s like us authors: we’ve no lack of them, do we, and they just keep popping up, no?).

    The problem is with elevating them in a centralized location. I’m thinking WFG, because that’s all we’ve got at the moment, and also because it’s reaching critical mass. We already have reviewers there, and some (very rudimentary) form of a ranking system for them. This can be a start.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    I just want to make an extra note here that I don’t have any problems with WFG at all. I think they’re utterly amazing and really doing a great service to the community. I’m just brainstorming features, and re-reading this thread, it occurs to me that it looks like I’m criticizing. That’s absolutely not the case. WFG=genius.

    That is all :)

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    I like the idea MCM puts forth of harnessing the potential of WFG (which already has reviewers, ratings and organization) and then refining it.

    Niche sections (ie. Mystery, Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy) with their own differently designed page and an expert/specialist reviewer sounds like a good idea.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @G.S. The thing I love about WFG is that if you click on that bar of genres at the top of the page, it will add them together, giving you virtually unlimited niche potential. If each one of those subsets had its own “king”, it would be an amazing example of the Long Tail in action.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    MCM — I like it. I’ve always liked WFG’s organizational ability, and I think adding your expert/specialist reviewer to that mix is a fantastic idea. I think giving each major niche (ie. Mystery, Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction etc.) it’s own designed theme page, with the expert reviewer(s) profiled on it, would help too. That way the main WFG pages act as a library hub, and then the individual sections would have a flavour of their own to attract the niche audience.

  • http://webfictionguide.com/ Chris Poirier

    @MCM — don’t worry on my account. I (for one) have been happy to get your insights. :-)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    WFG=genius

    *looks at Chris*

    See?! I told you so!

    *finds a nice rock to hide under*

  • bowerbird

    the system you’ve outlined won’t scale adequately.

    plus it’s not necessary…

    collaborative filtering will do the grunt-work of
    connecting authors and fans together, thank you.

    -bowerbird

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @bowerbird: this system will probably scale more efficiently than any alternative, because it has no bounds. It may become messy, but even in the chaos, there’ll be a structure lurking. Collaborative filtering, while cool, won’t give any authors a Super User boost, meaning everyone will be stuck with low-level growth for a very long time…

  • http://www.katandmouseserial.com Ace

    @Eli: I think I get what you’re saying.

    Let me see if I can ask my original question another way: Who are the “king” reviewers? Who are the Bobs and Jens?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Ace: The honest answer is that I have no idea. =| MCM would probably have a better reply. I’m tempted to say that they’re going to be found in the current reviewer system in WFG, and that they’ll establish themselves within the system, but that is presumptuous of me, and not possible without community incentives (like, say, recognition, or attribution). Very few people currently take pride in the reviews they give. That could be possible. But I have not given thought to how.

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @Ace: The kings are going to be found in a few places. Most easily, they’re in WFG already, and they need support to gain credibility. They already feel it’s important to do what they do, but they feel a bit lost in the shuffle. Giving them pride in their work will do a lot of good.

    Second, you have the non-weblit people who are interested in a certain niche, and who are technologically-savvy enough to see there’s an untapped community working in their area that they can build a base from. Become the bridge between the readers and the writers. They need to see an easy platform, and they’ll start taking the leap. If they see enough rewards (and not necessarily monetary), they’ll buy in. These reviewers are almost the most important of the bunch, because they’re actively expanding the weblit world.

    In the end, these are all regular people who we (the writers) need to upgrade into Super Users. We just need to keep our eyes open, and they should appear quite regularly.

  • http://www.midnightcross.com RavenProject

    While I agree with most of the principles here, it took me a while to realize what was bothering me.

    Why should reviewers work for ego so that writers can work for money?

    -J

  • http://1889.ca MCM

    @RavenProject: That’s the nut I’m trying to crack. If you look at it objectively, most writers are working purely for fun and ego (since most don’t get paid). But they have the ability to earn money… they can say “buy this book” and maybe make some money. Reviewers? Not so much. I don’t know what the solution to this is… it’s the bigger-scale journalism question, I guess. Sell ads on WFG and split the money proportionately based on hits? Maybe, but probably not ideal. There’s got to be a way, but I can’t put my finger on it yet…

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @John:

    Why would people share work online? Why would indie bands give music away for free? Why do crowds at online voting sites (the ones that attempt to predict winners of elections) do so, despite no monetary reward? Economics, as a discipline, has always dealt with the issue of incentives, and not all incentives are monetary. Fame and influence are powerful, compelling reasons, especially online.

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